Big loophole in the lobbyist bill

Commentator and Washington Post columnist Jeff Birnbaum

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Bob Moon: The Senate sent its ethics and lobbying law to the president today. Now lawmakers will have to pay for private plane rides, and disclose more about pet projects and funds that lobbyists raise on their behalf. The law also prohibits lobbyists from paying for lawmakers' meals and entertainment.

Commentator Jeff Birnbaum has spotted a very big exception:


Jeff Birnbaum: Lobbying laws are separate from campaign finance laws and the legislation just approved does not touch campaign funding laws at all.

The ban on meals, therefore, doesn't apply to fundraising events. There, lobbyists and their clients will still be able to buy food and entertainment for any lawmaker they want. The result is the following perversity: Lobbyists will not be able to pick up the check for a member of Congress any more — unless they also hand the lawmakers a check for their re-election campaigns.

In other words, the law designed to persuade the public that lawmakers are not in the pockets of special interests will probably increase the number of events that the public sees as synonymous with corruption: lobbyist-run fundraisers.

Welcome to the world of unintended consequences. The meal and gift ban is not really a ban at all. It has nearly two dozen exceptions, in addition to the fundraiser loophole.

For example, lobbyists generally will not be allowed to pay for lawmakers' tickets to sporting events. But lobbyists can host lawmakers if the lawmakers have some sort of official role in those events. If they throw out the first pitch at a baseball game, or toss the coin at the start of a football game, or wave the checkered flag at the end of a NASCAR race, the ticket for them can be free. Sweet.

And that's not all. Lawmakers can attend all sorts of lobbyist-paid events as long as they're carefully constructed. For instance, if they are widely attended, like receptions. Also, charity golf tournaments are perfectly legit.

Money is fungible, they say, and nowhere is that truer than in Washington. After the legislation is signed into law, it won't be business as usual any more. In some ways, it'll be business worse than usual.

Bob Moon: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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